INTERVIEW-Attract youth to farming in Nigeria to fight extremism, says campaigner

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 7 April 2017 12:04 GMT

Kola Masha, Managing Director of Babban Gona and winner of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Credit: SKOLL FOUNDATION/Gabriel Diamond

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"The problem for small farmers in Nigeria, and all over Africa, is economies of scale, no matter how hard they work"

By Astrid Zweynert

OXFORD, England, April 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Making farming in Nigeria profitable and an attractive livelihood can break the cycles of poverty and unemployment that leave young people vulnerable to extremism, according to the head of a social enterprise working with small farmers.

Low yields and lack of market access trap many smallholder farmers in poverty and drive young people into cities in the hope of finding jobs, putting them at risk of being lured by extremists, said Kola Masha, managing director of Babban Gona.

Nigeria's north-east, which is dominated by farming, has been poor for decades and an Islamist insurgency by Boko Haram has exacerbated problems with the region facing a severe lack of food as many farmers have been unable to plant crops.

To break that cycle Babban Gona - which means "great farm" - aims to turn thousands of subsistence farmers in northern Nigeria into commercial growers by giving them with everything they need from training and credit to seeds and marketing.

"The problem for small farmers in Nigeria, and all over Africa, is economies of scale, no matter how hard they work," Masha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Farmers working with Babban Gona in Nigeria in an undated archive photo. Credit: SKOLL FOUNDATION/Gabriel Diamond

Smallholders produce more than 70 percent of the world's food but their work needs to be commercially viable to make sure they can feed the growing global population, experts say.

"We're trying to solve this challenge by helping to build thousands of grassroots level farmer cooperatives and supporting each member with services they need to be highly productive commercial farmers," Masha said.

Farmers working with Babban Gona in Nigeria in an undated archive photo. Credit: SKOLL FOUNDATION/Gabriel Diamond

More than 13,000 Babban Gona smallholders have doubled their yields thanks to the project and increased their net income by 3.5 times that of the average farmer.

While Africa's recent commodity boom has seen the continent's economies grow fast, few jobs have been created and youth unemployment is estimated to be up to 50 percent in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country.

Finding jobs is pressing as the continent's youth population is forecast to almost double by 2050 and one in two Africans will be under the age of 25, according to the United Nations.

Farmers working with Babban Gona in Nigeria in an undated archive photo. Credit: SKOLL FOUNDATION/Gabriel Diamond

Masha said if small-scale farming can be made profitable, millions of young people could be attracted to the sector.

"Farming is a job creation engine that has the potential to draw millions of young people into the sector as entrepreneurs," said Masha, who was awarded the $1.25 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship 2017 this week that recognises business leaders whose organisations are having social impact.

"That will also make it harder for extremists to recruit them," said Masha, who also heads Doreo Partners, an agriculture focused, African impact investing firm.

"The next big step is to replicate Babban Gona across West Africa, and then maybe even Southeast Asia," he said.

(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert , Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)